In Free Speech Turnabout, Public Officials Seek to Silence Students

In Free Speech Turnabout, Public Officials Seek to Silence Students

A spate of student protests over racial discrimination on college campuses this fall and winter has triggered a backlash from critics who cast student demands as an affront to free speech.

But a dustup this week over legislation introduced in the Missouri legislature suggests that students’ own First Amendment protections may be at risk. On Wednesday, Missouri State Representative Rick Brattin, a Republican, withdrew proposed legislation that had sought to revoke the scholarships of student athletes who boycotted campus games.

The bill was a not-so-subtle response to a November boycott by the Mizzou football team that played a key role in forcing the resignations of then-University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe and of school Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. In a recent interview with CBS Sports, Brattin called the student athletes’ protest a “knee-jerk reaction” and “completely horrific.”

A controversial figure whose previous bills include a plan to restrict what items could be purchased using food stamps, Brattin introduced the bill with state Representative Kurt Bahr, another Republican. Pre-filed while the legislature was out of session as H.B. 1743 last week, the bill demanded that “any college athlete on scholarship who refuses to play for a reason unrelated to health shall have his or her scholarship revoked,” and called for fines to be issued against “any member of coaching staff” who supported or otherwise enabled an athlete’s decision to go on strike.

Brattin’s bill was immediately assailed by legal experts and activists alike, who called it a violation of students’ First Amendment rights.

“Rep. Brattin’s proposed law is not only a thinly-veiled attempt at keeping black athletes in line, it is also a violation of Missouri’s own constitution,” wrote lawyer and former Las Vegas Sun reporter Steve Silver in a blog post on Monday. “Revoking a scholarship if an athlete elects to strike as a form of protest certainly seems like a strong way of the government impairing speech.”

Brattin isn’t the only public official who stands accused this week of trampling on student activists’ free speech. In the wake of unrest in Baltimore following the death in police custody of Freddie Gray, City Public Schools CEO Gregory Thornton has taken what some call draconian steps to prevent violence as the six officers charged with Gray’s death go on trial. (The first of those trials ended in a hung jury Wednesday.)

As the city anxiously awaited the trial’s outcome earlier this week, Thornton sent a letter home to parents that spelled out school administrators’  expectations for students in the days following the jury’s ruling.

As reported by the Washington Post, Thornton’s letter stated that  “student walkouts, vandalism, civil disorder, and any form of violence are not acceptable under any circumstances.” This quickly drew the ire of civil-rights activists who accused Thornton of attempting to silence students under the guise of safety and security.

“This letter offensively and dangerously conflates the productive and affirming acts of students with criminal acts that not at all contributed to the advancement of our city,” said a Facebook post by the student group City Bloc, which has been active in organizing student protests at the Baltimore City Hall and around the city. “We will no longer tolerate this constant criminalization of our voices.”

The controversy spotlights an intensifying national debate between students protesting unfair treatment and discrimination, and a growing chorus of politicians, media pundits, and school administrators who have taken to categorizing their actions as disruptive and dangerous. The clash over civil rights versus free speech echoes some GOP politicians’ attempts to demonize the Black Lives Matter movement as an instigator of violence and crime.

It’s a familiar pattern when civil-rights activists speak up, wrote journalist Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker last month.

“The default for avoiding discussion of racism,” wrote Cobb, “is to invoke a separate principle, one with which few would disagree in the abstract—free speech, respectful participation in class—as the counterpoint to the violation of principles relating to civil rights.”